Art Wolfe Working the Image: The Night Fisherman

Excerpted from The New Art of Photographing Nature by Art Wolfe with Martha Hill & Tim Grey. Available online at 

People sometimes imagine that great photographs are composed in a flash of inspiration, arriving in the world fully formed. While that can happen, most of the time we fumble toward a great shot, refining the composition with each exposure. This was certainly the case with my image, The Night Fishermen. I will lead you through the process of steps it took to get there.

         For centuries, fishermen on the Li River of Southern China have partnered with cormorants to catch fish. Each fisherman has a complement of a half dozen or so trained birds. The light of a lantern attracts the fish, and the cormorants catch the fish and return to the boat, fish in beak. The birds can’t swallow the fish because the fishermen fix bands around their necks, but they eventually get their share.

         While the fishermen are working, they see enough tourists to know that a few minutes posing can yield as much money as a night’s work. After a few moments exchanging hand signals, we came to an agreement. In the first image I grabbed a shot of two fishermen approaching the shore. Unfortunately, nothing works here. A bright background throws the men into silhouette, some of the birds sit with their heads buried under their wings, and the composition is deadly static. I decided to try adding a second light to tame the contrast and provide a better sense of separation for the fishermen.

Night fishermen, Li River, Guangxi, China 16-35mm lens (for 24mm), f/10 for 1/5 sec., ISO 400

Night fishermen, Li River, Guangxi, China
16-35mm lens (for 24mm), f/10 for 1/5 sec., ISO 400

For the second shot, I tried a simple flash but it overpowered the background. Even with gels to match color temperature and knocking down the power by a stop or so, I could tell I wouldn’t get the result I wanted unless I could choreograph everything, which was out of the question given the circumstances. I needed better conditions, not better technique.

Night fishermen, Li River, Guangxi, China 16-35mm lens (for 22mm), f/10 for 1/5 sec., ISO 400

Night fishermen, Li River, Guangxi, China
16-35mm lens (for 22mm), f/10 for 1/5 sec., ISO 400

By the time I was ready for the third shot, a darkening evening sky balanced the light somewhat. A 23mm focal length gave me the depth I wanted and, combined with an f/8 aperture, enough depth of field. Although blurred moving birds ruined most of the shots, they also blocked direct light from the lanterns. I was making progress.

Night fishermen, Li River, Guangxi, China 16-35mm lens (for 23mm), f/8 for 1/3 sec., ISO 400

Night fishermen, Li River, Guangxi, China
16-35mm lens (for 23mm), f/8 for 1/3 sec., ISO 400

By the fourth shot, the light was getting good, but the composition was still too tight. I needed space for the image to breathe. Also, I was getting so close that the cormorants were becoming agitated.

Night fisherman, Li River, Guangxi, China 16-35mm lens (for 23mm), f/8 for 1/5 sec., ISO 400

Night fisherman, Li River, Guangxi, China
16-35mm lens (for 23mm), f/8 for 1/5 sec., ISO 400

The fifth image is a vertical. Everything is working here. The light was coming alive. I still preferred the horizontal composition, but I often license images for magazine covers or ads, which usually require vertical compositions. Never turn your back on a sale, I always say.

Night fishermen, Li River, Guangxi, China 16-35mm lens (for 17mm), f/8 for 1/3 sec., ISO 400

Night fishermen, Li River, Guangxi, China
16-35mm lens (for 17mm), f/8 for 1/3 sec., ISO 400

Finally, with the final shot, it all came together. The cormorants stood stock still, heads up and blocking the lantern light like champions. The fishermen, now bored out of their skulls, were occupied with their tasks, transforming a posed image into a genuine candid shot. The light was in perfect balance: background, foreground, and warm lantern fill. The fisherman received their tips, I had my shot, the cormorants swallowed some morsels, and everyone was happy.


The Night Fishermen, Li River, Guangxi, China 16-35mm lens (for 16mm), f/8 for 1/3 sec., ISO 400

The Night Fishermen, Li River, Guangxi, China
16-35mm lens (for 16mm), f/8 for 1/3 sec., ISO 400

Q & A With Astrophotographer Mike Taylor

Mike Taylor has mastered the art of shooting the night sky. His work is truly awe inspiring. We got in touch with him to learn more about him and his creative process. Enjoy!

Tell us a little about yourself.

My name is Mike Taylor and I am the owner and photographer at Taylor Photography, a freelance imaging studio based in a 19th-century farmhouse in central Maine. I have been a scenic/nature and studio photographer for over 20 combined years. I am an artist, a philosopher, a musician, a movie buff, and a self-proclaimed connoisseur of beverages made from malted barley & hops ... we all have our bag of rocks to carry. I started my own photography business a couple of years ago in the hopes that I could turn my passion for capturing the night sky into a full time career. All the information regarding my work can be found at my website: 

How did you come to love astrophotography?

There is so much to see, so much to hear, so much to enjoy during the dark hours of each day – the moon, the stars, the Milky Way, the occasional meteor, and the spectacular Northern Lights displays.

I have always been a "night owl" - I can remember sneaking out of the back door of my home as a teenager on warm summer nights to go sit somewhere in my neighborhood and wonder about Man's existence while looking up at the stars. Most folks are so busy with day-to-day life that they rarely contemplate the radical idea that we all live on a small rock which is rotating and flying through the cosmos at a speed we can barely fathom. When I started seeing beautifully processed Milky Way images I said to myself “I bet I can do that too.” And that's one of the main things I try to teach in my night photography and processing workshops: anyone with the desire, motivation and some decent camera equipment can do this. 

I have been fortunate enough to have my landscape astrophotography and scenic/nature images & articles featured on NASA's Astronomy Picture Of The Day, The Weather Channel, NBC News, Viral Nova,, Yahoo! News,,,,, and multiple other science websites and social media pages. 

What tips could you share that would help someone shoot better night shots right away - or at least get on the right path?

In general, to avoid light pollution you need to drive as far away as possible from any city or town – 50 to 100 miles is a good start. Depending on where you live, this may be a real challenge and could involve a significant amount of travel time, so planning ahead helps. Check out the International Dark Sky Association's 'DarkSky Finder & Destinations' page for suggestions. Plan your shoots by scouting areas during the day to find compositions that you like since you won't be nearly as productive trying to do that in the dark. 

To get the most out of shooting at night take the time to learn your camera's capabilities. Know your gear's limitations. While any 'point & shoot' camera can be used for night photography as long as it has high ISO and long-exposure capabilities, higher end DSLRs are really the way to go.  I have always subscribed to the idea that it's not the camera that matters as much as the person looking through the viewfinder. But night photography is a different animal than daytime photography; the paramount results will be achieved via your passion, commitment, and the best equipment & training you can acquire. 

In general, exposure times for the Milky Way and constellations are anywhere from 15 seconds to 30 seconds or slightly longer. It depends on your gear because full frame cameras can take longer exposures than cropped-sensor cameras without the stars trailing. Specific lenses and focal lengths come into play as well – most times you want to be shooting at f/2.8 or faster. As always, the exposure triangle is the first thing to consider when photographing at night, as long as your gear is capable of capturing decent images at very high ISO settings. 

Use a heavy duty, sturdy tripod. This is an important piece of gear that many people skimp on. Don't place your $3k camera body and lens on top of a $30 plastic tripod – sooner or later, you will regret it. Probably sooner. 

Other tips: Be patient. Think outside the box. Be respectful of your surroundings. Enjoy the process. Allow yourself to be filled with wonder. Have fun!

Your photos tend to be filled with color. How do you capture such vivid color in your astrophotography? 

Post-processing is an integral part of creating a great final image. A good eye for composition and lighting is the most important aspect when capturing images in the field but the way to turn a “good picture” into a “fantastic photograph” is through processing – the time and energy you spend to selectively edit your images in the digital darkroom. 

What is the mission of the International Dark-Sky Association and how can people get involved?

The goal of the International Dark Sky Association is to raise public awareness of light pollution and to work with people to reduce/eradicate it where ever possible using intelligent lighting techniques. I work in conjunction with the IDA and I very much agree with their focus. I encourage folks to check out their site for more information on how to get involved - YOU can make a REAL difference by doing something as easy as using environmentally responsible outdoor lighting! 

Do you have any upcoming workshops, books, or other events?

I teach night photography and post-processing workshops around scenic areas in Maine and I just returned from an incredible two weeks co-instructing night photography and time lapse techniques in Moab, Utah. Check out my workshops schedule here: I also offer presentations of my work and speaking engagements around the country. I am currently co-authoring a children's book called 'The Secret Galaxy' (Tilbury House) which will be released in October. 

Corona Arch at Night.jpg
Blue Spikes Aurora.jpg

Q & A with Gura Gear Pro Tony Sweet

Tony Sweet is a widely published photographer, workshop leader (Visual Artistry Workshop Series), sought after speaker and member of the Gura Gear Pro Team. We wanted to dig deeper into the life of Mr. Sweet to learn from his experiences and tell his fascinating story.

What brought you to photography as a profession?

Good question. It all began in my previous career as a jazz musician and educator. I was fortunate enough to work with some of the greatest jazz artists on the planet. So, I decided to get into photography to photograph the musicians I was working with, and to document one of the last jazz scenes in the country, the Cincinnati jazz scene of the late 80s. I was playing then and was working every night. About that time, I met my future mentor, Tony Gayhart, who dealt in used camera gear. After a few visits and transactions, he showed me a few nature slides, which immediately captured my imagination. I sold my fast glass, for low light of jazz clubs, and purchased a good tripod, wide to telephoto zooms, and a macro lens. I read everything I could find, especially the books of John Shaw and Jim Zuckerman. I began  shooting at local nature preserves, expanding into national travel with the Great American Photography Workshops company. After a few years with the GAPW, I began local lectures to build a workshop clientele. Got picked up by Nikon, who sponsored speaking events. After getting a feature article in Shutterbug, many moons ago, things picked up and the Visual Artistry Workshops  business was started, still going strong after 20 years.

What tips or advice do you have for becoming a better photographer?

Tip 1: Learn your gear so that its instinctual. That way you can function in the moment, quickly and fluidly, being one with the subject. Any mechanical issues at all greatly distract from the experience and can affect your image making and creative flow.

Tip 2: Always try to get a different perspective  than your own height. Very low, very high, at an extreme angle. Horizontal and vertical formats can greatly change the feel of your image.

Tip 3: Learn everything you can about the particular style of photography to which you aspire and attend live location workshops with photographers who do the kind of work that you like.

Who or what have you looked to for inspiration and why?

Pat Ohara and Freeman Patterson were my first major influences, exemplifying the more artistic side of nature/ outdoor photography, which was my native proclivity being a professional jazz artist (drummer) for 20 years at the time I started photography.  Ive taught along side of John Shaw, Pat Ohara, Rod Planck, Bryan Peterson, and others and have gained great insight and inspiration from watching these masters work live. 

You talk about how you love to go back to places. Tell us about a particular place that has changed for you as youve gone back.

One of our most visited locations since I began as a photographer up to a workshop a few weeks ago, is the Great Smoky Mtns, TN. Aside from being the most visited park in the country, it is easy to get around, even at peak times, if one knows when and where to go. In regards to your question, the change that takes place when revisiting locations over and over again is very little in the outer landscape, but in the inner landscape. As I revisit a location year after year, it becomes almost literally impossible to take the same image over and over, so I begin to look at different things, perspectives, smaller areas, tighter compositions, different angles, infrared, panoramics. The software is getting better and better all of the time and, if were lucky, our processing matures, lending to more original and personal work. This is a natural, not a forced, process. Changes and evolution is style and vision takes years, actually throughout ones life. 

You have authored five books. Tell us a little bit about what it takes to write a book and get it published.

 All it takes to write a book is an idea that can be expanded upon for about 100 pages, or so, then sending manuscripts to publishers until it gets picked up, or declined. Ive authored our 5 book Fine Art Photography series through Stackpole, but have collaborated on several more over the years. Although, I continue to work with Stackpole, I also have e-books in the pipeline. A great deal of hard/ soft cover books are also available as e-books.  However, anyone can self publish and the quality is excellent, depending on how much one wants to pay. E-books can be the most lucrative.

What workshops, books, speaking engagements or other things do you have coming up that we should know about?

Thanks for asking!

Our workshop schedule is at:

Of particular interest is our Iceland Tour w/ Focus on Nature and Santa Fe w/ Bobbie Goodrich!

Not on the schedule is our Portugal workshop next May. (email for details)

We also do a series of day long Creativity Seminars that are currently being booked. Schedule will be posted soon!